Word has come of a gruesome accident in the Canary Islands. A cruise ship anchored there staged a test of its lifeboats, and five crewmen died. At the moment, the cause is said to have been a break in one of the cables by which lifeboats are lowered to the water. A picture shows a capsized lifeboat next to the ship. The dead crewmen were trapped beneath it.
This is sad, but why is it of any more interest than any other industrial accident? Because lifeboats are constantly hailed as a solution, not a cause, of naval disaster.
The 101st anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic arrives on April 14. We will hear a great deal about the importance of government regulations to ensure that every ship has enough boats for its whole company of passengers and crew.
Since the Titanic, this kind of regulation has been in effect. But as with most regulations, the effects have been mixed, to use a conventional kind of understatement. When American total-lifeboat regulations came in, two things happened. One was the ruin of America’s passenger steamship lines to the Orient. The owners couldn’t afford to meet the new standards (which, admittedly, included labor-protectionist provisions only notionally connected with safety). The other was the sinking of the steamship Eastland. The Eastland capsized in the Chicago River, with immense loss of life, because it had been overloaded with lifeboats.
The story of the Eastland is ably presented by George Hilton in his book on the subject. I myself have analyzed the lifeboat issue in my book about the Titanic. I’ll hit some high points:
Only one large passenger ship has ever been evacuated solely by its own boats, and that was a vessel in which almost all the passengers and crew were under military discipline. If a large ship gets into trouble, it ordinarily sinks right away (as did the Lusitania, with horrible results from the attempted launching of lifeboats), or it takes days to sink. In the first case, few boats will probably be capable of successful launch (even the Titanic used remarkably little of its available lifeboat space). In the second case, other ships will appear to take people off the stricken vessel, if that vessel is anywhere near normal lines of travel.
It is a fearful thing to enter a lifeboat and be lowered 50, 60, or 70 feet into an ocean that is probably cold and turbulent. Usually, it’s better to stay with the ship. If the passengers on the Costa Concordia, which suffered a disastrous mishap off the coast of Italy in January 2012, had understood this, they would not have panicked, and they would have sustained fewer deaths. Instead, they remembered propaganda about the Titanic and concluded that they were doomed, because their lifeboats were not efficiently launched. In some cases, they jumped off the ship, and died.
By the way, the Costa Concordia never sank. It’s still there, lying on its side, along the coast of Italy. If you were a passenger without an operative lifeboat, you could still be living on board. Yet watching the one-year retrospectives on this event, one would think that the ship had sunk — and passengers had died because lifeboats were not available.
The truth is that everything people do, or plan to do, has its own risks. Even tests of government-mandated rescue equipment can go wrong, terribly wrong. There is no such thing as a free lunch, or a free rescue, either. Let’s end the pious pretense that there is.